Monday, September 20, 2010

Community Leads to Happiness

While reading Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss, I identified with a lot of his sweeping generalizations about happiness, lessons that I too have learned while living abroad in Africa and China.  These past four years have been good to me on the happiness scale.

I have learned that even though I believe that I am happiest as an isolated loner, the reality is I've always been surrounded by community and that is a source of my happiness.  Through his travels Weiner realized that the nature of happiness comes from family and friends.  I learned this recently while traveling in Seattle then to Colorado.  During the first few days I barely spoke to anyone, biking everywhere, isolating myself in lonerville, and felt like I didn't belong to America anymore, felt that my travels abroad had somehow changed me so much that America was no longer comfortable or familiar.  Then slowly I started meeting up with old friends.  Then I went to Colorado where I was completely surrounded by friends and family without a moment to be alone.   By the end of the month of home leave, I was once again feeling like an American who belongs, not some expat strange alien who was visiting a weird planet for a month.

Both in Africa and China, I have spent large amounts of time alone; however, I am never completely alone.  Community always seems to find me.  In Africa, there were the tea guys, the fruit and rice ladies, the students, the four wives of a compound where I lived, the tree where people gathered, the accused witch who lived next door, the kids who would play games, sing, and color on my front porch.  In China, there are the back gate street food vendors, the students and teachers, the knitting ladies, the tea guy at the Baijia supermarket, the grandparents with babies and children, the cafeteria workers.  I often think I am an introverted science geek, but actually reality shows that I know how to be likable allowing a community to surround me.  My genuine curiosity about people with different life experiences and from other cultures is probably one of the reasons why I am always surrounded by community and thus happy.

There are times when I think I want to join a Buddhist monastery, isolate myself even further from the outside world, find peace within meditation, silent retreats, and simple living.  Or go to Antarctica or find a job on a fishing boat and learn about the isolation of being surrounded by ice or water.  The truth of the matter is that even with this belief that I thrive best alone, I never escape people or community.  Why would I want to anyways?  Life has taught me that I am happiest surrounded by community.  

Where does this desire for isolation come from?  Aren't we all seeking happiness?  I have found it so why do I seek a life in the opposite direction?

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